Is This the Crop That Saves Florida Agriculture?

by Tom Schenk

If you’ve driven through central and southern Florida over the last several years, you may have wondered why much of the land that used to grow oranges and grapefruit in central and southern Florida now sits fallow and choked with weeds? Most people are aware of the fatal citrus greening disease that has caused one of the greatest agricultural disasters in US history. Almost every remaining grove in the Sunshine State is infected with this disease as researchers struggle to find a cure with little to show for results.

In 2017, the growers who were still in the game were spending between $1,500-$2,500 per acre in expenses to coax a profitable citrus crop out of their dying groves. These efforts were met with almost ideal growing conditions and by all accounts it appeared that their efforts would be rewarded with one of the best crops they’d seen in years.

Until the arrival of Hurricane Irma which went through Florida like a chainsaw leaving no grove untouched.

Damage reports indicate that half or more of the unripen fruit is now laying on the ground while what remains in the trees is bruised or will eventually drop off in the coming weeks.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, many groves were left standing in water far beyond the critical 72 hours which is almost always fatal for citrus trees.

Directly and indirectly, Florida’s citrus industry creates almost 45,000 jobs which translate to almost a $9 billion contribution into Florida’s economy. Today’s citrus industry has shrunk by well over half from its peak in the late ‘90’s leaving rural towns and communities distressed and struggling to survive as families and individuals move away to find work elsewhere.  There are only 7 remaining processing plants in the state and it is highly questionable how many will remain open and viable when ultimate crop losses may be as high as 80%-90%.  There’s a point where it does not make economic sense to salvage the remaining fruit in a grove or open a processing assembly line for the smallest harvest since the 1940’s. Like any commercial real estate, ag land is generally priced as a function of its income earning value plus any development potential. Citrus grove and that used to be valued at $10,000 – $15,000 or more per acre now sells for less than half to a third of that.

But why can’t some other crop fill this void?  It’s not for lack of trying.

South Florida’s hundreds of thousands of acres of sandy, shallow soils and rainy climate narrow the field of viable crops that can be profitably grown in those conditions.  Afternoon rains continually flush fertilizers and chemicals out of the soils, into the drainage canals, and ultimately Florida’s coastal estuaries and Everglades. In spite of these challenges, many growers and outside investors have ventured into some alternative specialty crops such as peaches, blueberries, tomatoes, and strawberries.  Establishment costs, however, are very high.  In the case of blueberries, it could exceed $15,000 per acre! To make matters worse, growers have found themselves struggling with a diminishing supply of farm labor. And finally, whenever prices spike higher from either early season prices or if there is a production shortfall, floods of cheaper imports arrive in a matter of days from Mexico and South America.

  • So what can work in Florida’s unique agricultural ecosystem?

There is one ray of hope that shows great promise of restoring ag land values and revitalizing business in South Florida’s rural towns.  In 2011, an enterprising group of entrepreneurs from a company called TerViva began approaching some of the state’s largest citrus growers to establish some trial sites with a tropical/subtropical tree crop called pongamia. Pongamia is an oilseed tree that is native to Australia and India.  Conceptually, the crop is like growing soybeans on trees, but at yields 8x-10x over the best Iowa farmland. Pongamia is not new to Florida.  At the turn of the last century, it was introduced as a landscaping ornamental and today a few of these trees can still be found along the turnpike, shopping centers, and in parks in south Florida.

Creating a viable agricultural industry from scratch is not an easy task, but it has been done.  Soybeans were unheard of until they were introduced in the early 1930’s and palm oil trees were developed from the rubber plantations in Southeast Asia after WWII.  Interestingly, products from pongamia are thriving industries in India where the oil is used for industrial applications like fuel, lubricants, paints, surfactants, biopesticidal horticultural sprays, and more.  The “cake” or “meal” that remains after the oil is extracted is coveted as a great fertilizer that releases its nitrogen slowly so a plant can utilize it better. In India it is used to suppress soil-borne pests like nematodes that are the arch enemy of many of our food crops.

So what is the path to prove the viability of a new crop in the US – especially in such a challenging geography as Florida? Below is a checklist of the gauntlet it had to run.

  • Will the tree grow here?

This was the first order of business TerViva set out to prove to growers when they arrived in 2011.  The first grower who would listen to them was Ron Edwards CEO of Vero Beach – based Evans Properties. Edwards, former COO of Tropicana and co-founder of SoBe Beverages and Blue Buffalo Pet Foods, has a track record of spotting a good management team, a good business model, and an idea that had a good shot of succeeding.  Skepticism was high so Terviva offered to split the costs of the first trials.

The result was beyond expectations.  Growers such as Graves Brothers, US Sugar/Southern Gardens, DNE, Alico, Mosaic and others soon followed.  Around the state, the tree grew well in diverse sites with sandy soils, toxic soils, saline soils, and even Mosaic’s challenging clay reclamation soils. In 4 years the trees were 10’ to 16’ in height.

 

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Pongamia orchard in Florida – Photo by TerViva

The trials have shown that these trees survived hurricanes Mathew and Irma, 2 weeks in standing water, frosts, non-irrigated fields, poor soils, higher-salinity irrigation not suited for most other crops, sand, clay, pests, and heat. Indeed, pongamia can deal with Florida’s challenging climate and soils..

  • What are the costs to grow it?

Establishment costs are very similar to citrus.  Indeed, the first thing that growers noticed was that the tree could literally be dropped right into the existing citrus infrastructure. The trees cost about the same as citrus and the planting densities are equal to or slightly less than citrus. Some growers literally planted between the stumps of former orange trees. To date in Florida, no pesticides have been used.  This hardy tree has grown through a laundry list of tropical and subtropical pests that growers spend millions of dollars on to control.  The biggest annual expense is weed maintenance until that young tree can get some height and eventually shade out a lot of the undergrowth which can subsequently be managed with mowing. So annual maintenance costs tally to about $400-$500 per acre – about one third or one fourth of what citrus currently spend.  Some growers used a small amount of fertilizer, and many used none at all.  Pongamia is a legume so it enriches the soil by making its own nitrogen.

  • How is it harvested?

Almost all of the fruit and vegetable crops grown in Florida need manual farm labor and every year that has been more difficult and costly to come by. Conversely, a crew of 2 and a nut tree shaker like those used on pistachios or almonds can harvest a pongamia tree in 3-5 seconds.  Those cost benefits accrue directly to the bottom line.  For the past 2 years as some of the young trees have produced pods early, Terviva has put on grower demos to show how easy and fast the tree can be harvested.

  • Who’s going to process it?

The beauty of the pongamia industry is that everything about it is low-tech. The tree puts out a pod that is easily shelled with a nut sheller and crushed with conventional soybean crushing equipment.  It doesn’t require elaborate $100 million processing plants or exotic enzyme formulations to make it work. The bean inside that pod looks about the size and shape as a lima bean.  It consists of about 40% oil and the 60% balance is the remaining seedcake. In 2017, the forward-thinking Hardee County IDA and its head, Bill Lambert, unanimously voted to build the first pongamia crushing plant in Florida. Because of the elite varieties that Terviva is cultivating at various commercial greenhouses in the state, an acre of their trees is conservatively estimated to yield about 400 gallons of oil and almost 3 tons of seedcake!

  • Who’s going to buy the products?

This is where it gets interesting. There is a long buffet of diverse markets for this oilseed tree crop and therein lies one of its greatest advantages.  These profitable markets range at the low end from a feedstock for industrial oils, to feed, and all the way up to highly-valued biocontrol products for the organic agriculture.  Organic growers have long been familiar with the benefits of pongamia’s oil and meal products under the Indian name karanja.

Like soy, pongamia oil is a long-chain C18:1 compound that can readily be refined into biodiesel or bio-jet A fuel.  Those tests have been tested and validated by Shell, Valero, REG, and ARA Labs. Refiners view a pongamia crop in Florida as a new oilfield that faithfully produces oil every year. Fuel is the base-case end market and can produce fine investment returns.

Classified as a politically correct “non-food” feedstock it can be used to make biodegradable polymers such as fracking fluids, plastics, detergents, paints, and other industrial products.  Secondary compounds found in the oil have documented and long used in India as extraordinarily effective biopesticides as good as or more effective than more commonly known neem products that are widely used by organic farmers, gardeners, and in the fast growing cannabis industry.  Because of the lack of need for inorganic chemicals used in growing pongamia, these high-value end-products are in growing demand by organic feed and growing operations. Sales into these channels alone can double or triple the value of the cake and oil.

The seedcake or meal can be further refined to produce a (30%) high-protein animal feed, or simply be used as an environmentally-friendly, slow-release 4-1-1 fertilizer that plants can better utilize.  Because the backbone of the oil shares similar properties to various food oils, scientists have told Terviva that the secondary compounds could be stripped out to upgrade the oil to “food quality” which could be of great value in parts of the world where pongamia could be grown on a footprint not adaptable to traditional oilseed crops.

  • Bus 101

The arrival of the pongamia farming model into the staggering agricultural void created by the citrus greening disease could be a classic business school case study.  The trail has been blazed.  A deeper dive into this business model reveals some very unique attributes.  The trees high yields offer an extraordinary margin for error in any given crop year.  For many alternative oilseed row crops planted elsewhere in the US (often as a new rotational crop), the entire growing season can tolerate few hiccups or else the yields will have a difficult time justifying the risks of planting and new machinery investments.  Pongamia’s low annual maintenance costs also allow a lot of margin for adverse weather surprises.  Pongamia’s diverse downstream markets mitigate marketing risks.  Low-tech processing that can create products from fuel and feed to fertilizer and biocontrol horticultural sprays can allow plenty of flexibility to target up-cycling markets and reduce dependency on single consumer markets.  And depending on those markets, Terviva estimates that at maturity, the groves could generate a net income between $700- $1,500 per acre.

What would the ideal replacement crop look like if it showed up at growers’ doorstep? Probably something like pongamia.

Toward a Low-Carbon Transportation Future: Part 2

By Tomas Endicott, Processing & Markets Manager

Last week I wrote about carbon intensity and how the GREET model, standardized by the U.S. Department of Energy, quantifies the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated when producing different transportation fuels—both fossil fuels and renewable fuels.

Today, let’s talk about factors that contribute to producing low-carbon transportation fuels.

Lifecycle carbon tracks CO2 emissions from feedstock production to combustion.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are tracked on a lifecycle basis. That is, CO2 is generated at many points in a fuel production pathway: feedstock acquisition, processing, refining, transport. The more carbon efficient each step in a particular fuel production pathway, the lower the carbon intensity of the final fuel. For processing fossil fuels or biofuels, reducing carbon emissions may include using renewable sources of heat and electricity that generate less CO2, such as biogas, wind power and solar power. Acquiring feedstock to produce transportation fuels presents many different pathways, each unique in the lifecycle CO2 emissions it generates.

All feedstocks are not created (carbon) equal.

Fossil fuel feedstocks—crude oil or natural gas—are fairly carbon-consistent no matter what their origin. They all are extracted in enormous volumes from underground. Biofuel feedstocks are incredibly diverse. There are many more variables that contribute to carbon intensity throughout every step of any particular biofuel feedstock production process.

All plants are self-sufficient. Some more than others.

Most plants are photosynthetic. They create hydrocarbons in the form of carbohydrates (i.e starch, sugar, wood) and/or fats (oils) using carbon dioxide (CO2), nutrients, sunlight and water. The plants use these carbohydrates and fats for their own energy, and they “invest” them into their seeds for the next generation. These carbohydrates and fats also are the source of the energy we harvest and convert into biofuels.

All plants also need some amount of nitrogen to grow and thrive. Legumes, like soybeans, alfalfa seed and pongamia seed, are special in that they harness their own nitrogen—the backbone for proteins—through symbiosis with bacteria that live on their roots. These rhizobium bacteria fix elemental nitrogen from the atmosphere and supply it to the plant in a form the plant can use.

Less inputs equals lower carbon intensity.

Non-leguminous plants must derive nitrogen from compounds in the soil. In a natural environment, that source of nitrogen may be composted organic matter or nitrogen compounds deposited in the soil through earthworm activity. Because modern, improved agricultural crops produce such high yields, they require large quantities of commercial fertilizer. Commercial nitrogen fertilizer is synthesized from natural gas, and its production requires significant energy input. As a result, producing commercial nitrogen fertilizer generates carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and those emissions are attributed to the lifecycle carbon of the crops that use the nitrogen fertilizer.

Nitrogen is expensive, both in the energy consumed to manufacture and transport it and in the dollars farmers must expend to apply it to their fields. Because nitrogen fertilizers must be applied to non-leguminous crops like corn and canola, producing biofuels from these non-nitrogen-fixing crops is more carbon intensive than producing biofuels from legumes.

By-products provide additional value.

Oilseed crops, like soybeans, canola and pongamia, can provide oil as feedstock for renewable fuels. They also provide another by-product: high-protein meal, which has significant value as livestock feed and as organic fertilizer.

Pongamia seeds are removed from their shells before being processed. These shells are half the weight of the harvested pongamia pods, and they can provide significant biomass to supply renewable, low-carbon heat and power to the pongamia biofuel processing pathway.

Greater yield per acre equals lower carbon intensity.

Because carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated while producing crops are spread across the total yield of a particular crop, crops that produce higher yields per acre can be more carbon-efficient. Every trip across a field to till, seed, fertilize, spray or harvest increases CO2 emissions and increases the carbon intensity for a particular crop. Crops with higher yields spread their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over larger production.

Growing conditions also affect yield. Logically, crops grown in tropical and sub-tropical environments experience more sunshine and heat, and they have longer growing seasons, so they produce larger yields per acre.

Annual or perennial makes a difference.

Annual crops—those that must be planted every year—require some amount of tillage or application of broad spectrum herbicides (i.e Round-Up) to prepare the seedbed and to minimize weed competition with the cultivated crop. Tillage alone can increase carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields simply by exposing organic matter in the soil to oxygen, thereby, allowing it to be decomposed aerobically, which generates CO2.
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Simply tilling the ground increases carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from agricultural fields. Photo by Kai Oberhäuser on Unsplash

Perennial crops are established once and produce for many years. They do not require annual tillage. For large trees like pongamia, annual maintenance is low when the tree canopy prevents sunlight from penetrating to the ground, so nothing can grow there.

Although they require a few years to produce their first crop, yields for perennial crops tend to be much higher per acre than yields for annual crops. Whereas the average yield for soybeans in the U.S. is about 2,700 pounds per acre, perennial pongamia trees can produce more than 10,000 pounds of seeds per acre per year at eight years of age and beyond. The average lifespan of a pongamia tree is at least 25 to 30 years.

How many gallons of oils per acre?

For the purpose of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel production, seeds of different crops have different concentrations of oil—their percentage of oil by weight. Whereas soybeans contain only 16%-18% oil by weight, canola seeds contains more than 40% oil by weight and pongamia seeds contain 30% to 40% oil by weight. Considering the combination of per acre yields and the oil concentration in the seeds of a particular crop determines the amount of biodiesel or bio-jet fuel that can be produced by a given cultivated area. Here is a chart demonstrating the amount of oil per acre produced by different oilseed crops.

More yield per acre equals greater carbon efficiency.

Whereas soybeans produce only 55 to 60 gallons of oil per acre annually and canola produces about 120 gallons of oil per acre annually, mature pongamia trees can produce more than 450 gallons of oil per acre every year.

The CO2 generated to harvest an acre of soybeans or to harvest an acre of pongamia seeds are similar. Mature pongamia trees, however, yield almost four times more seed per acre than soybeans, and they yield about eight times the oil for every acre harvested. Now that’s efficiency!

Maximizing transportation efficiency minimizes CO2 emissions.

To achieve maximum carbon efficiency, transportation fuels need to be produced and moved in large volumes. It is most carbon-efficient to move fuels by pipeline, although pipelines are expensive to build and they have other environmental considerations. Moving a million gallons of fuel on a single ocean-going barge is ten times more efficient than hauling the same volume of fuel the same distance in hundreds of tanker truck loads. The efficiency of moving fuel in 25,000-gallon rail cars lies somewhere between the efficiency achieved by barges and the efficiency attributed to tanker trucks. Renewable fuels, like fossil-based fuels, must be produced on a large scale to achieve transportation efficiency.

Going further on a gallon of fuel reduces CO2 emissions too.

The most efficient gallon of fuel is the one that you never use. Producing low-carbon fuels at scale is only half the battle. Reducing consumption of all transportation fuels is the best carbon-reduction strategy for the transportation sector. Electric cars, hybrids and clean diesel technology are all available today, and all are improving with each new model year. In 2012, President Obama established new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards which will raise the average fuel efficiency for all new cars and trucks in the U.S. to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Impressive! Currently, the CAFE standard is 35.5 miles per gallon.

Carbon-efficient, sustainable biofuel feedstock, high-protein livestock feed and organic fertilizer from the perennial pongamia tree.

The pongamia tree can provide a unique and substantial contribution to the United States’ sustainable, low-carbon biofuel future. It is a nitrogen-fixing, subtropical tree that is native to India, Indonesia and Australia, and it grows well in Florida and in Hawaii. It is both drought resistant and accustomed to Monsoonal rains (TerViva’s pongamia orchards in Florida held their own against the wind, rain and flooding from Hurricane Irma last week). Pongamia can grow on sandy soils, and it is resistant to moderate salinity. It is a perennial tree that is highly productive for both non-edible oil as a feedstock for biofuels and for protein-rich meal for livestock feed and fertilizer.

Imagine our low-carbon transportation future!

TerViva is rolling out pongamia orchards on abandoned citrus land in Florida and on land that formerly grew sugarcane in Hawaii. Imagine a future where 100,000 acres of pongamia trees produce 50 million gallons of biofuel and 340,000 tons of high-protein meal each year. Imagine biomass heat and power produced from a half-million tons of pongamia shells harvested annually. Imagine bio-char from gasified pongamia shells sequestering carbon in the soil for thousands of years—steadily reversing the CO2 increase in the earth’s atmosphere.

Imagine millions of acres of pongamia orchards spread across the sub-tropical areas of Asia, Africa, Mexico and South America providing billions of gallons of biofuel every year. Imagine fuel efficient vehicles that go twice as far on a gallon of fuel so that we consume half the transportation fuel that we do today. With biofuels, electric vehicles and other technologies in the mix, renewable fuels could make up 50% of the total transportation fuel consumption in the U.S. within twenty years.

This is not a pipedream. It is absolutely possible. It is a matter of aspiration, effort and will.

Let’s do it!

We Can Reverse Climate Change

by Lila Taheraly

After learning about Project Drawdown last year, I could breathe a sigh of relief. I could finally envision an appealing goal for the world: reversing climate change. Not mitigating it, adapting to it, or solely reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but actually reversing climate change.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming is a book which gathers 100 solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. It ranks them based on their potential carbon impacts in the next 30 years, and studies their implementation costs compared to business as usual (using fossil fuel oil, gas and coal). Published in June 2017, the book describes a possible and hopeful future.

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PC: Paul Morris on Unsplash.com

What is Drawdown? Drawdown represents the moment when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere begin to decline. Combined, all these proposed solutions could eliminate up to one trillion of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050 — enough to prevent the climate tipping point of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial level. These solutions would also cost less and create more jobs than business as usual.

Below are the top 10 solutions in terms of carbon impact and their potential carbon savings by 2050:

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PC: Karsten Würth on Unsplash.com

  1. Refrigerant Management – 89.74 GT CO2* eq.
  2. Onshore Wind Turbines – 84.60 GT CO2 eq.
  3. Reduced Food Waste – 70.53 GT CO2 eq.
  4. Plant-Rich Diet – 66.11 GT CO2 eq.
  5. Tropical Forests – 61.23 GT CO2 eq.
  6. Educated Girls – 59.60 GT CO2 eq.
  7. Family Planning- 59.60 GT CO2 eq.
  8. Solar Farms – 36.90 GT CO2 eq.
  9. Silvopasture – 31.19 GT CO2 eq.
  10. Rooftop Solar – 24.60 GT CO2 eq.

Beyond these 10 solutions, the real power of this book lies in the abundance of solutions and the measurement of their potential impact. These technologies all exist today, and some are scaling up right now. In the USA, in 2016, solar power employed more people than electricity generation through coal, gas and oil combined.

To reflect on this profusion of solutions, here is my selection of favorites through an award competition.

The unexpected: Educating Girls, ranked 6th.

Discovering “Educating Girls” as the 6th solution to mitigate Climate Change was fascinating! After the surprise, the explanation made perfect sense. Educated girls tend among others to have fewer and healthier children, to have higher wages and contribute more to the economic growth. In developing countries, educated women also grow more productive agricultural plots, and their families are better nourished. Today, there are still barriers preventing 62 million girls from their education rights.

The low-key: walkable cities, ranked 54th.

Walkable cities or neighborhoods favor walking over driving (thus reduce CO2 emissions but also improve health). In a neighborhood, walkability can include density of homes, offices, and stores; practicability of sidewalks, walkways and pedestrian crossings; and accessibility to public transportation. Today, demand for walkable cities far exceeds the supply. You can check the walkability of any location via applications like this one.

The never-heard of: temperate forests, ranked 12th.

We hear so much about the tropical forest degradation, than we tend to forget its sibling: the temperate forest. A quarter of the world’s forest lies in temperate zone, either deciduous or evergreen. 99% of it has been altered throughout history with timber, conversion to agriculture or urban development. This solution is to restore and protect temperate-forests on degraded land. Young temperate forests sequester carbon in both soil and biomass at very fast rates.

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The most picturesque: in-stream hydro, ranked 48th.

While hydropower reminds us at huge dams, reservoirs, and big environmental impacts, in-stream hydro is defined as less than 10 mega watts hydropower technologies. They are small scale in-stream turbines. The advantage of small scale is that turbines can be designed to have a minimal impact on the environment and become accessible in remote territories like Alaska or Nepal, unlocking great potential.

The most related to our business: perennial biomass, ranked 51st.

Compared to annual crops like corn, perennial biomass grows for many years. In a climate perspective, it makes a fundamental difference. Perennial biomass throughout their lifetime requires fewer energy inputs, and prevents soil erosion, produces stable yields, supports pollinators and biodiversity. As an example, Pongamia, an oilseed producing tree, is a legume and fixes nitrogen naturally.  Pongamia also grows deep roots thereby reducing water needs and increasing the carbon sequestration.

My  favorite coming attraction: living buildings

Besides 80 solutions against climate change, Project Drawdown also introduces 20 “coming attractions”. One of them is “Living Buildings”. Living buildings answer the question: How do you design and make a building so that every action and outcome improves the world? For example, Living buildings could grow food, use rainwater and protect habitat. The Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, VA, completed in 2014 produces all of its drinking water from rainfall, uses 90% less water than a commercial building of the same size, and generates 83% more energy than it consumes.

Curious and inspired by Project Drawdown? You can visit their website, read the book, and come back to tell me about your favorite solutions.

 

 

 

 

*Note: 1 gigaton of CO2 (GT) = 1,000,000,000 tons of CO2.

At ambient temperature, one ton of CO2 holds on in 559 cubic meters (19,775 cubic feet), i.e. in an 8.25 m high cube (27 ft).

 

 

 

Land Sharing vs. Land Sparing: Can We Maximize Yield and Biodiversity?

By Nathan Chan, TerViva Germplasm Development Associate

We often think of the environmental impacts of agriculture being limited to things like pesticides and nutrient runoff polluting waterways (see my colleague’s post for more on this), and methane emissions from livestock contributing to climate change, but one of agriculture’s biggest impacts has been its role as a leading cause in declines in wildlife and natural habitat. That may not resonate with those of us in Europe and the United States, where we’ve had a fairly mature agricultural industry for the past 100+ years (I challenge you to imagine what the West may have looked like before humans), but deforestation to create lands suitable for agriculture in South America and Southeast Asia is directly responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of hectares of habitat for thousands of species. This is not a sustainable approach moving forward as we aim to feed 9 billion people worldwide while working to maintain our remaining biodiversity.

Clear cutting and burning rainforests is common in the tropics to create more land for agriculture.

A popular framework for finding a sustainable solution gives us two strategies: “land sharing” and “land sparing”. In land sharing, lower intensity agriculture is practiced in favor of less productive methods that promote more suitable conditions for wildlife resulting in less food produced per acre. In land sparing, farmers practice high intensity agriculture to boost yields, enabling them to forego expansion and leave natural areas “wild”. There are tradeoffs with both approaches — organic “land sharing” farms have on average 30% higher species richness and 50% higher abundance than conventional “land sparing” farms, but produce 20-25% less yield per acre.

In an article examining the tradeoffs of food production and wildlife published by The Breakthrough Institute, Linus Blomqvist puts forward the idea that higher yields, especially in the row crops that use the most land globally, will always result in lower on-farm biodiversity because there are “simple biophysical components of yield growth that there is not much of a way around.” The highly specific management practices farmers must use to get maximum yields from a specific crop preclude the establishment of other plants, which form the basis of a habitat that can sustain wildlife. As evidence, Blomqvist cites declines in farmland bird populations in Europe and America being driven by the loss of habitat and nesting sites in high-intensity agriculture settings – not due to direct mortality from pesticides.

An example of a “land sparing” farm — diverse set of crops, surrounded by potential wildlife habitat.

Even in the most organic, ecologically friendly, “land sharing” farm one can imagine, any decision to increase yields would result in higher-intensity practices that would in turn decrease the farm’s ability to support wildlife. If higher yields per acre on an organic farm decrease on-farm habitat quality, than the only way to increase yield while maintaining habitat quality is to use more land. In the West, more land probably means acquiring farmland or uncultivated land from a neighbor.  However, in South America, Asia, or Africa expanding croplands often takes place at the expense of natural habitats like forests. Any gains in on-farm biodiversity may be offset entirely by the loss of natural habitats.

Multiple combines and tractors with grain carts harvested a large field of corn outside New Haven, Ky.

As we try to feed a human population of 9 billion-plus people, agricultural land will expand and will undoubtedly come at the expense of wildlife and natural habitats. The question we face is how to minimize that impact. Land sharing and land sparing underscore the idea that there is a tradeoff between food production and biodiversity: increasing one will invariably decrease the other. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can try to mitigate that trade off. Embracing GM technologies like Bt enables crops to produce their own insecticide (that is safe for human consumption) and reduce the need for spraying pesticides allowing non-target species to thrive. Incorporating staples of organic or agroecological farming like crop rotations and cover crops make it difficult for a single pest species to persist from year to year further reducing pesticide loads.

There is no correct answer to the land sharing vs. land sparing debate. Both ideas have their merits and embracing one or the other is better than nothing. The growth of the global human population will continue and it will be at the expense of the natural world, but through the discussion and implementation of ideas like land sparing and land sharing, and the incorporation of new crop technologies and agronomic practices we can hopefully reduce that negative impact.

Author’s Note: The idea behind this blogpost came largely from the previously mentioned article published by The Breakthrough Institute, Food Production and Wildlife on Farmland. I encourage you to read it if you are interested in this topic. 

Well Managed Animal & Livestock Nutrition As Part Of A Low Carbon Future

by Eduardo Martinez

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Of many discussions around Global Warming and the subject of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), the majority are focused on causes like energy production or transportation emissions, and most of those emissions are carbon dioxide.  According to EPA’s 2016 Report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, electricity production and transportation produced over 56 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

In addition to those well known causes, agriculture and livestock production also contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.  The three main GHG emitted by the agriculture and livestock sector are nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as well as losses of nitrogen (N), energy and organic matter that undermine efficiency and productivity in agriculture.

The greatest opportunity for reduction of GHG emissions in the livestock sector lie with improving the efficiency with which producers use natural resources (think tractor fuel) engaged in producing plant protein for animal production, to manage the cost per unit of edible or non-edible output. These improvements are always being pursued in the interest of increasing yield, enhancing quality, or reducing production costs, all while providing a safe and affordable food supply to the public.

There is an obvious and direct correlation between GHG emission and carbon intensities and the efficiency with which producers use natural resources. But among possible opportunities for reducing GHG emissions, fascinating breakthroughs lie in improving livestock nutrition efficiency at the unit level—in this case—the cow level. The average cow emits around 250 liters of methane per day and ruminants overall (animals like cattle, goats and sheep) contribute about 25% of all anthropogenic or man-made methane emissions.

Today universities and industry are working closely together in many ways to improve cattle production and efficiency by eliminating waste, applying the latest enzyme research to improving ruminant digestion and protein conversion. They are also introducing alternative forms of plant protein that might also be more sustainable than traditional energy-intensive animal feedstocks like soy or corn.

For example, recent studies have identified how livestock diet can affect or minimize methanogenesis — methane production.  One common misunderstanding on playgrounds across America is that the back end of the cow is the prime offender in producing GHG in the form of methane. But the truth is the vast majority of methane comes from the cow’s burp—over 95%, in fact!  Thus the opportunity for improvement lies earlier in the animal’s digestive tract.

Rocky De Nys, Professor of aquaculture at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, has been studying the effects that introducing seaweed to a cow’s diet can have on methane production.  Specifically, Professor De Nys and his team discovered adding a small amount of dried seaweed to a cow’s diet can reduce the amount of methane a cow produces by up to 99 per cent.  The species of seaweed is called Asparagopsis taxiformis, and JCU researchers have been actively collecting it off the coast of Queensland.

“We had an inkling that we would get some success from this species, but the scale or the amount of success and reduction we saw was very surprising,” he said, adding “methane gas was the biggest component of greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector.” The key aspect of Asparagopsis taxiformis is that it produces a compound – bromoform (CHBr3) – which prevents methane production by reacting with vitamin B12 at the final step, disrupting enzymes used by gut microbes that produce methane gas as waste during digestion.

Advances such as these are critical to increasing sustainability in the farm and livestock industry and reducing the carbon intensity of farming and producing our global food supply.  TerViva is providing forward thinking solutions in the form of our tree-based platform for producing plant protein and vegetable oil, Pongamia pinnata.

TerViva’s Pongamia tree produces 3 times the plant protein per acre than soy (3 tons vs 1 ton) and 10 times the vegetable oil per acre than soy (400 gal. vs 40 gal.) and all without the negative environmental impact and carbon intensity of annual row crops. Permanently installed orchard crops like Pongamia trees provide tremendous opportunities for carbon sequestration that offset anthropogenic GHG starting with the obvious visible form of the tree visible to the eye, and also from the deep and stabilizing root system below ground.  Pongamia is also a nitrogen fixing legume that takes atmospheric Nitrogen and returns badly needed (N) to the soil.

In the next 12 months, TerViva will be modeling the exact amount of carbon sequestered by our trees per acre, and therefore, the exact amount of carbon reduction that our protein meal offers as compared to soybean.  I’d bet that we’ll find our protein meal offers a compelling advantage over soybean meal in terms of greenhouse gas reduction overall.

Add these sustainable characteristics to the numerous high value products that Pongamia trees yield, and to top it off, a nice shady canopy to host a songbird’s nest or to provide some welcome shade to cattle or sheep on a hot, sunny day and you’ve got a winning addition to tomorrow’s sustainable farming portfolio.

Grazing the Steaks

The imagery of cattle on 747, flying 2500 miles across the Pacific ocean took me by surprise –and wasn’t an idea I ever thought I would have to entertain until I began exploring the market potential for pongamia seed cake as a cattle protein supplement in Hawaii.

content cattle

Very content cattle (replacement heifers) on a intensive rotational grazing system at Ponoholo Ranch on the Big Island, with sweeping views of the coastline and Pacific Ocean

Through this pursuit, I discovered that approximately 75 percent of the cattle raised in Hawaii are shipped, by either plane or boat (via “cowtainers” or “floating feedyards”), for finishing and processing on the mainland. This practice began taking place after a large-scale processing plant closed down in 1990, causing the only large capacity feedlot to follow suit.  In another article, I explain that this practice not only decreases Hawaii’s market share of the industry from 30 percent to less than 10 percent, but also bears down on the islands’ food security and self-sufficiency — a looming issue for Hawaii. Nonetheless, it turns out, shipping cattle live to the mainland for finishing and processing is more economical for ranchers than purchasing feed to finish them here. A big issue is that the cost of feed (protein) is nearly double the price paid by ranchers on the mainland. Thus, with limited local feed options, in addition to veterinary care, branding, processing, and grading services, finishing and marketing the product on the mainland becomes more profitable.

cow calf operations

Cattle production chart depicts each phase of production and relative nutrients. Cow-Calf phase in yellow is what primarily takes place in Hawaii.

The scenario described is exactly why local feed solutions are currently in vogue in Hawaii.  In fact, a variety of industry stakeholders are interested in locally produced livestock feed, especially those derived from biofuel co-products, in effort to bolster Hawaii’s food-security and self-sufficiency, as well as the economic pay-off. With this considered, Pongamia is not only high-performing biofuel but also a potential solution to a eminent food security issue here in Hawaii.

Knowing all this, the seemingly manifest subject-matter of cattle supplementation in Hawaii quickly became a quandary through the market research process. First, Hawaii’s cattle inventory (including calves) is 135,000 head. With only one 950 head capacity feedlot in Maui, most of the weaned calves that are finished in Hawaii (a little over 8,000 head) are almost entirely forage-finished. These cattle are locally marketed as “grass-fed,” which doesn’t necessarily mean that can’t be given supplements but it is indeed a murky market to evaluate. However, most of Hawaii’s beef cattle industry consist of cow-calf operations, which takes place over a year before the finishing (feedlot) phase, as illustrated in the chart below. This is key as supplementation is the most critical during the cow-calf phase, given the mother cow’s high nutritional needs during pregnancy and lactation. With approximately 80,000 mother cows requiring 2-3 lbs of protein a day, this particular market could range from about 2,500 tons of pongamia potential, if only half of the mother cows received the supplement for 365 days, up to 8,000 tons of pongamia potential if all 80,000 mother cows receive the supplement for 365 days.

hawaii climateFor an even more critical look, a majority (about 80 percent) of the cow-calf operations are on the Big Island, where you’ll find one of the most productive (and jaw dropping picturesque) grazing lands in the U.S. Moreover, what you might find surprising, is that the Big Island is home to three of the top 25 largest cow-calf operations namely, Parker (#9) , Ponoholo (#21), and Kahua Ranch (#23). These three ranches (all neighbors – pictured below) make up a quarter of Hawaii’s protein supplement market. Parker ranch alone has approximately 10,000 mother cows over 130,000 acres, in 4-5 climate zones that can be observed from a pu’u (mound) from just up the ranch headquarters. These microclimates, along with the mountainous topography and multifarious winds are certainly factors these ranches take into consideration when choosing to supplement. Parker Ranch, for instance, finds it important to look at the season and time of year, as the nutrients in the forage is dependent on this.parker ranch Ponoholo, on the other hand, over 11,000 acres and three climate zones, prides itself on being a low-cost ranch, that is able to practice intensive rotational grazing which maximizes nutritional opportunities for the cattle, thereby reducing damage to the land through erosion and overgrazing. Given this, Ponoholo would likely forgo protein supplementation even in the event of drought, where they find it best to simply reduce their herd size. Right next to Ponoholo, Kahua Ranch would, however, consider using a protein supplement especially during drought to maintain cow-herd numbers. This illustrates the complexity and case-by-case nature of the cattle protein supplement market Hawaii. Nonetheless, even the ranches that rarely supplement their cattle, are still behind the idea using of pongamia seed cake as a protein supplement — especially in a drought situation, which one rancher explained could be the difference between life or death for a cattle herd.

Nitasha Baker

RISE/EEx- TerViva Business Development Fellow

Is precision agriculture the new low hanging fruit?

In the world of agriculture, ‘precision ag’ is hot. Precision agriculture is a farm and site specific management system to optimize inputs and outputs. Essentially, farmers use GPS, sensors and big data analytics to better understand and adjust for spatial variability in their fields such as yields, moisture levels, soil variability, etc. Rather than treating the farm as a monolith, the idea is to break it down into smaller sites and customize agronomy to each site accordingly.

WSJ graph on precision agMonsanto recently announced big initiatives in the space, including the launch of FieldScripts (software), the $250M purchase of Precision Planting (hardware), the $1BN purchase of Climate Corporation (data analysis) and the acquisition of the soil analysis business line of Solum, Inc.  The company says that precision planting, based on detailed analysis of soil and land conditions, can improve corn yields by 10 bushels per acre. Monsanto isn’t alone in embracing precision ag. John Deere, Syngenta, CNH, Dupont and others have also been pushing the technology. Not surprisingly, the venture guys are following suit with a number of investments in the space.

If you want to understand why, just read last week’s Wall Street Journal article that estimates that 41 million acres of corn seeds were planted in 1 week last year (twice the max rate in 2008). GPS software attached to tractors allows farmers to plant more precisely and to plant at night. Planting faster is important because farmers can identify ideal planting windows and optimize for weather.

precision ag chart

Source: http://lb.landw.uni-halle.de/publikationen/pf/pf_cc98.htm

Over the past 100 years, the agriculture industry has pursued a variety of means to increase yields. These “low-hanging fruit” innovations include new irrigation techniques, mechanically powered tractors, biotech crops, fertilizers and higher density plantings. Precision agriculture is next. Just in time too. According to the US EPA, “some 3,000 acres of productive farmland are lost to development each day in this country.” That’s more than 1 million acres lost every year, an area the size of Delaware.

Sample1_20100709_NDVI-1024x653

Precision ag also holds another promise: countering climate change. For example, it has the potential to curb overuse in fertilizers. A report released last month by California Environmental Associates argues that countries like China use too much fertilizer. Using precision ag technologies, farmers in China could reduce fertilizer use by 30%-60% without harming yields.

Data management tools give farmers more choices to measurably improve nitrogen use efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions. Just last week, Smithfield Foods and Environmental Defense Fund teamed up to help farmers optimize fertilizer application. EDF estimates that this collaboration will reduce excess nitrogen fertilizer on more than 450,000 acres and reduce GHG emissions from agriculture by more than 60,000 tons. Not bad.

Despite these possibilities, precision agriculture needs to overcome a number of challenges in order to reach its full potential. At a recent Agri-Tech Summit hosted by Sidley Austin LLP, Dr. Ted Crosbie (Monsanto’s Integrated Farming Systems Lead) described some of these challenges. For example, on any given field, soil can materially vary every 150 feet! That’s a lot of data that needs to be collected and analyzed. In addition, there are concerns about the privacy of farmer data; namely who owns it and who can use it.

Still, like the innovation that came before it, precision agriculture holds enormous possibilities for how we grow food and further optimize farming inputs and outputs. Hopefully investment in this space will bring the costs down so farmers around the world can reap the benefits.

By: Sudhir Rani
CFO of TerViva, Inc.